In Saturday’s Army-Navy game (3 p.m. ET, CBS), you’ll see a brand of football that’s uncommon in today’s game. The Black Knights and Midshipmen will rarely line up in the shotgun, and they might only throw a combined 10 or 20 times in 60 minutes. The teams are going to run at each other all afternoon, and whoever can out-fake, out-block, and out-sprint the other will win.
Army and Navy are two of a small handful of FBS programs that run the modern version of an offensive relic. The vast majority of the sport went away from the triple option since the 1980s, and even though most schools still use plenty of option concepts, Army and Navy are among the schools who’ve most kept it alive as a total offense.
These days, it’s called the flexbone. It is a variation of an even older formation, the wishbone. And it’s spawned numerous spinoffs that have been used around the sport for years.
The flexbone has variations. (“Flex” is short for “flexibility.”) But since it reached the major college game in the the ‘80s, its most basic set has been this:
This includes offensive linemen with wide splits between each, a quarterback under center, a fullback behind him, two receivers, and two speedy “slotbacks.” The slotbacks are sort of like running backs, sort of like traditional fullbacks, and sort of like receivers.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson is most frequently credited as the system’s chief innovator, using it at Georgia Southern during a run that began in the 1980s and led to six FCS national titles for the school. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was a Johnson assistant at Navy and Hawaii, as was Army head coach Jeff Monken at Hawaii, Georgia Southern, Navy, and Tech.
The flexbone is an option offense through and through.
In the base formation, when the quarterback takes the snap, he often has choices stacked on choices.
Here’s how just the three basic options in the triple option work, though there are endless variations.
1. The QB turns toward a charging fullback behind him and holds the ball into the FB’s stomach. While he’s doing that, the quarterback is “reading” the defensive tackle on the play side – left or right, depending on where the play is heading.
The defensive tackle doesn’t have to be blocked, though he might be, depending on the play. If the DT charges after the quarterback or a hole opens up because of a block, the QB lets go of the ball, and the fullback runs ahead. Here’s Army:
If the defensive tackle moves to tackle the fullback, or there’s no hole, the fun begins.
2. The QB can pull the ball and run parallel to the line of scrimmage. Eventually, he’ll reach an unblocked end, linebacker, or defensive back. As this is happening, the back-side slotback has usually come in motion and is trailing behind the QB.
So the QB has another read to make. If the defender comes for him, he can pitch the ball off to the trailing slotback. The other slotback is lead-blocking. Here’s Navy doing it with some extra deception mixed in on a counter:
3. And if the free defender moves to cover the trailing slotback? You guessed it. The quarterback keeps the ball and runs upfield. Here’s Navy:
Notice how Navy QB Will Worth reads No. 17 (at the line) and then No. 14 (in the open field) for Notre Dame. Both defenders were going to be wrong no matter what they did, and Worth made sure it hurt.
The flexbone is a running offense, but not exclusively.
The nation’s top four teams in yards per completion are run-option offenses (Air Force, Georgia Tech, Navy, Army), and Navy and Air Force lead the country in yards per passing attempt. That happens more or less every year. Defenses expect the run, so when you throw from the flexbone, you can be explosive. Here’s Army:
It also gets vastly more complicated than what’s outlined here. Chris B. Brown’s explainer for Grantland is a read well worth your time. So is a document of principles Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo laid out in a 2009 presentation. The flexbone can be run out of well more than a dozen formations, and they’re hard to master.
Army and Navy have many good reasons for running the flexbone.
It’s not easy to recruit football players to the service academies. The academic requirements are rigorous, and players need to be committed to post-graduate military service. It’s become a bit easier for service academy standouts to play professionally, but there are no guarantees.
"I think the service academies are the most difficult places to recruit to in the nation," Monken told SB Nation in 2014.
This offense requires nimble linemen who can run, not 330-pounders. Well, service academies don’t have any of those anyway, because of graduation weight limits. But they do have 290-pounders who are capable of making weight by graduation, along with running 1.5 miles in 10 minutes and 30 seconds.
The four- and five-star quarterbacks of the world generally have NFL dreams. They’re not making the post-grad military commitment that service academy cadets make. But with the flexbone, Navy and Army don’t need Tom Brady standing in the pocket. They need quickness and ground-based decision-making, like from Navy’s all-time FBS touchdowns record-holder, Keenan Reynolds.
The scheme also levels the playing field from a clock management standpoint. When you’re running almost all the time, incompletions are rarely stopping the clock. That means fewer possessions during a game and fewer chances for the team with the higher overall talent level to win. The game stays closer. Navy beat Notre Dame this year, 28-27, and held the Irish to six possessions all game. That was the fewest possessions by an FBS team in a game since 2008. The Irish offense was efficient, but it barely had the ball, and Navy was able to grind out one more point.
It’s hard to defend, because teams don’t see the flexbone often. Niumatalolo thinks it’s hardest to run the bone against Army and Air Force, because those teams are used to working against it in practice. That advantage might’ve declined somewhat over Navy’s three years in the American Athletic Conference, but conference membership gives Navy a new advantage, too.
“Being in the league, people get more familiar with it and are better able to stop it,” Niumatalolo told SB Nation in October. “Probably, there’s some truth to that. But we also get to see what you’re doing, too, get to game-plan what you’re doing and try to come up with other answers.”
Defenses adjust, but Navy’s been up to these tricks for years.
"We've seen some guys who line up and try to keep it simple, and we see some who try to change the defense on every play. Which is fine,” Niumatalolo told us in 2015. “It's not a very complicated offense, but there are so many intricacies that we've been doing for so long. We've got certain things for slanting defenses, for even-front teams, for pressure. The last resort of the defense is to start firing people from the secondary, which we have answers for, too."
The flexbone isn’t just a way to muck things up.
It often works.
This year, Navy ranks No. 25 in opponent-adjusted Offensive S&P+. That’s far higher than a team with few former rated recruits should rank. Army’s nowhere near as high, but the Black Knights are also in year three of a rebuild.
“This offense is tried and tested, because it’s not a gimmick offense,” Niumatalolo said. “People think it’s a gimmick offense, but it’s based on numbers. It’s based on angles. It’s really what a lot of people now are doing out of the spread. They’re just doing it out of the gun. But people are running stuff; it's all numbers-based. When they spread out, if you don’t pick up the right numbers, they’re gonna run the bubble, or you take guys out to take away this, they’ll run the ball inside.”
The flexbone fits well with the service academies’ entire ethos. Be a part of something bigger than yourself, work in a group as a single machine, and play in this offense that’s based on ramming into people and sometimes taking massive hits even when you don’t have the ball.
If players understand the system, they can operate it on short notice. Worth was Navy’s backup when starter Tago Smith went down in the season opener, and Zach Abey will start on Saturday after Worth got hurt in last week’s AAC title game.
But don’t bank on the flexbone looking a whole lot different. That’s not how it works, and it’s kept working all the same.